The Islamic Villa

An Islamic Contribution to the Villa Discourse


List of Illustrations Acknowledgments



An Islamic Contribution to the Villa Discourse

The Munya and Andalusi Umayyad Art History



The Genesis of the Munya Tradition      

The Later Emirate (796–852): Rulers, Concubines, and Eunuchs  

Unfree Elite Patronage                                                                                                                       

Muhammad I and Rusāfa (852-86)

Caliphal Villas

The Free Aristocracy



Munya Remains

The Munya of Durrī al-Saghir (al-Rummāniyya)

A Regional Villa Type


Architectural Ornament, Material Culture, and the

Córdoban Ivories

Nature and Artifice



Texts and Terminology

Town and Country




Zarf: the Context of Refinement

Nazh: the Notion of Retreat



The Diplomatic Villa


Objects of Feasting and Refinement

Civic Processions

Agriculture, Good Governance, and Political Legitimacy



A Munya Aesthetic



Translations by Stuart Sears

I On the Munya of Durrī al-Saghir (al-Rummāniyya)


On the Emir Muhammad I and al-Rusāfa (852–86)

On the Emir Muhammad and Architecture: Recollection on the Enhancement of Buildings

On the Origins of the Córdoban Rusāfa


Bibliography Index




In the year 711 C.E., the Iberian Peninsula, or present-day Spain and Portugal, acquired a new role, as the westernmost boundary of the new and vigorous Islamic empire (Figure 1). Expanded and consolidated by the rulers, or caliphs, of the Umayyad dynasty of Syria (r. 660–750 C.E.), at the beginning of the eighth century the Islamic empire encompassed the vast territories which lay between the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the banks of the Oxus River in South Asia.1 As they brought forth a new empire, Syrian Umayyad patrons also forged a distinct Islamic art. Embodied by works such as the Dome of the Rock, the architecture of early Islamdom creatively fused the great antique traditions of the Mediterranean basin and the lands east of Mesopotamia into something at once fresh and distinct, yet also clearly rooted in the past.

The Iberian Peninsula had been brought into the Islamic empire since its conquest by Umayyad forces in 711, but it is not until after 750, when revolution fomented by the Abbasid dynasty in the central Islamic lands toppled the Umayyads of Syria and ushered in the "classical" moment of medieval Islamic history, that the story of the Andalusi Umayyads, and hence that of the munya begins.2 This book is about the aristocratic suburban villas (Arabic munya, plural munān or munyāt, henceforth munyas) which the Umayyad sovereigns and their courtiers founded in Córdoba, and the place of these villas in the court culture of early Islamic Spain. The munya has been variously defined in secondary scholarship, but Ibn Hayyān (d. 1076), the great Andalusi Umayyad court chronicler, provides an excellent basic definition: he notes that the first of the Umayyad estates comprised a luxurious residence (qașr hasan) as well as extensive gardens (janān wāsi ̊a).3 While we know that the patronage of suburban estates is a constant in the history of the dynasty from its inception, the reasons why this might have been so are not entirely clear. Ruggles has established the fundamental importance of agriculture, and of vision in the form of framed landscape views, to understanding the royal palaces and gardens of al-Andalus over the nearly eight hundred years that it formed part of the Dār al-Islam, or Islamic empire. Yet, numerous questions remain about Córdoba, the wellspring of the Peninsula's famous tradition of palace and garden-making. For instance, why did ‘Abd al-Rahmān and his heirs choose to focus extraordinary time, effort, and resources on founding suburban villas around their capital city, rather than other building types, mosques for instance? Their peer dynasties elsewhere in the early and medieval Islamic lands, while also founding both secular and religious monuments, seem to have placed more emphasis on religious monuments than on palaces and villas, though this impression is more likely a result of disciplinary issues specific to art and architectural history than historical reality. Nevertheless, the Andalusi Umayyads could have chosen, like the Fatimids at Cairo, to found a series of large congregational mosques in and around their capital city, or, like the Samanids of tenth-century Iran and Central Asia, to focus on dynastic funerary monuments.5 The reasons for the Fatimid and Samanid choices are of course complex and rooted in specific local circumstances quite different from those of Córdoba, but the point remains that munya patronage as a focus of Andalusi Umayyad time and effort was far from automatic.

What functions did these suburban villas have that justified the undoubtedly serious expense and effort involved in the construction of a whole series of munyas over the approximately two-hundred-year period of Umayyad rule? Were they sites of retreat—the so-called pleasure gardens of flowers and tinkling silver fountains, later memorialized in the poetry of post-Umayyad al-Andalus, where rulers could safely engage in behavior frowned upon by the pious, such as wine-drinking and music-making in the company of boon companions and beautiful slave girls? Or, to follow another thread in the historiography, were they predominantly working farms, designed above all for agricultural production, part of a broader economic program established by the Umayyad state across the Peninsula? By interrogating the Umayyad court chronicles with such issues in mind, and by following a chronological framework, some answers begin to emerge to these questions.

As the following chapters will attempt to explain, suburban estates were both retreats and productive sites for the ruler and members of his court, and more. Material and textual evidence provides an expanded definition of the aristocratic munyas as walled suburban villas, with luxurious residential pavilions, service structures, and gardens enclosed within stone walls, which were the favorite retreats of the Umayyad sovereigns and the most privileged of their courtiers, and one of the most striking features of the fertile river landscape just beyond the Umayyad capital city's walls. Time spent at a munya encompassed relaxation and pursuits both physically and mentally stimulating. Hunting was the favorite physical activity. The desire for intellectual stimulation was satisfied at the majlis gatherings at which courtiers would listen to musical and poetic performances, or discuss topics such as history, science, poetry, ethics, or any of the other numerous subjects with which tenth-century courtiers in the Islamic lands were interested and informed. A glance at the structure of Ibn 'Abd Rabbihi's Al-'Iqd al-farīd (Unique Necklace), the most popular work of adab in the Umayyad court, illustrates the dizzying range of topics which patrons and guests might discuss and debate during villa retreats: famous sermons and orations, women and their characteristics, great wars and battles, the rules of poetry, food and drink, proverbs, the natural qualities of animals, witty sayings, and the deeds of kings, to give just a partial list. Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi's own tastes serve as an illuminating character sketch for the aristocrats who enjoyed the delights of munyas: fond of music and singing, wine, women, and the company of friends and courtiers, merrymaking, and appreciative of the beauty of nature.“

The story of the transfer of the Umayyad dynasty from Syria and the eastern Mediterranean to the far Islamic west revolves around the founder of the Andalusi branch, 'Abd al-Rahman I. Fleeing the personal and social turmoil of Abbasid ascendance, accompanied only by his young son and a faithful Greek freedman, this Umayyad prince made his way out of Syria, across Egypt and into western North Africa. Admiring historians called him the "Falcon of the Quraysh,” alluding to the tribe of Muhammad, from which the Umayyads were also descended. 'Abd al-Rahman I took refuge with the Nafza Berbers of North Africa, his maternal relations. During the five years that he lived in North Africa, the future founder of the Córdoban Umayyad dynasty mustered a significant part of his army of supporters from North African Berbers. With an army composed of Berber and Arab (mainly Syrians who had been clients of the Syrian Umayyads) ‘Abd al-Rahmān crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, which separate the northern tip of Africa from the southernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula. In 756 they conquered al-Andalus from the governor who ruled it in the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. 'Abd al-Rahman became thereafter a politically independent sovereign in the Dār al-Islam, or the Islamic empire. He chose as his new capital the ancient city of Córdoba, in present-day southern Spain, and the Umayyad dynasty was reborn on Iberian soil. The ‘Abbasid dynasty's overthrow of the Syrian Umayyads thus marks the beginning of a second Umayyad history, this time on western European soil, even as it signaled the end of the same dynasty in the central Islamic lands.

As the capital of al-Andalus, Córdoba flourished under Andalusi Umayyad governance for nearly three centuries. Celebrated as one of the great urban and cultural centers of the medieval world, by the tenth century Córdobans boasted that their city was comparable to the great cities of Islamdom, especially Damascus, the city of the Syrian Umayyads, but above all Abbasid Baghdad, in wealth, size, beauty, and sophistication. Traffic, commercial and cultural, between Córdoba and these centers of Islamic civilization, as well as with non-Muslim neighbors such as the Byzantine and Ottonian courts, was frequent and productive. Throughout history villas and villa cultures are linked to the rise of great cities, and this was the case with Umayyad Córdoba. With its luxuriously appointed residential pavilions, and its fertile, watered gardens and orchards set off by strong enclosing walls from the surrounding landscape, the suburban villa was the preferred setting for life among the powerful aristocrats of the Umayyad court. The villa served as container and stage for the activities which took place within its boundary walls-not only leisure pursuits such as hunting, fishing, conviviality, and the enjoyment of music and poetry, but also, with the revival of the Umayyad caliphate at the beginning of the tenth century, the state's official political events.

Between the mid-eighth and tenth centuries the munya as an architectural type and a marker of a way of life reached the height of its importance in the city's medieval landscape and in the court culture of the Umayyad dynasty. Norbert Elias described the French court of Louis XIV as a theatre of social life, and a formative influence on convivial culture. The munyas of Córdoba occupied a similar position in early Islamic Spain. As productive estates the munyas were sites of cultivation, the source of foods, fragrances, and other luxuries considered requirements of elegant society. At the same time the munya was the primary setting for the court activities at which those goods were enjoyed, displayed, and consumed. Just as Versailles offered an alternative space to Paris for the activities of the French court during the reign of Louis XIV, the munyas served as alternative settings to the urban palaces of Córdoba and the Umayyad royal city of Madīnat al-Zahrā' (founded c. 936). This was particularly true in Córdoba for court activities in which the articulation of political relationships through display of political and cultural capital (to use Bourdieu's notion of the values and tastes which groups use to express status and social position) was celebrated as spectacle. Given their central role in court society, did the munya function in Córdoba as one means by which the Umayyad state presented itself as the most legitimate claimant to the pan-Islamic title of caliph, against the rival Fatimid and Abbasid courts? Or, might suburban palaces and estates have also played a parallel role in Abbasid and Fatimid court societies during the caliphal period?

Literary studies of eleventh-century Andalusi poetry, characterized by the minute description of flowers (nawriyyat) and the poetic evocation of gardens (rawdiyyat), have created a notion of the munya as merely a pleasure garden, a space of frivolity. In such poetry gardens are evoked only in a general and abstracted sense, as the backdrop for the pleasures of drinking parties and romantic trysts. This conception has contributed to the notion that the munya lies outside the purview of such serious issues as politics and religion.1o It is a central tenet of this book that Andalusi Umayyad court culture cannot be fully understood without the munya.

An Islamic Contribution to the Villa Discourse

The villa, as the eminent architectural historian James Ackerman observed, is not limited to any particular architectural type, culture, or historical moment but rather is a social and an ideological phenomenon discernible throughout history. Because one doesn't often hear the term “villa” used in connection with either the medieval or the Islamicate world, I have used it consciously throughout the book as a way of reviewing the assumption that villas were all but absent from the medieval Mediterranean. If there is one thing that unites scholars working in the fields of ancient Roman, late antique, Byzantine, Islamic and Renaissance architecture to whom I have presented my work, it is a pervasive unease with my insistence on using the term "villa” as a synonym for the Córdoban munya. The objection is undoubtedly prudent, and one to be taken seriously.11 Nevertheless, as I hope will become clear, there are equally valid reasons for using the term. While acknowledging that the term “villa” is not an exact equivalent for “munya,” an underlying assumption of this book is that the munyas of Córdoba were comparable in many ways in conception and social significance to the more familiar villas of the ancient Roman empire or of early modern Italy. My justification for using “villa” rather than the more common "palace" when speaking of the munya is based on several considerations. First, late antique texts themselves used “palace” and “villa” interchangeably, signaling an ambiguity that had already existed for centuries by the time the munyas were founded.12 Villa is by no means a tightly defined term. It encompasses great diversity, even simply in terms of building types and function, which is abundantly evident in historians' attempts to define with precision "the" ancient Roman villa. As Ackerman has established, the broadness and flexibility of the term makes it possible to speak not only of the villas of ancient Rome and early modern Florence, but to those of other times and places, such as eighteenth-century Europe, or nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, as represented by Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Waters.13 Of course, historians must pay close attention to the specificities of the terminology used in medieval texts that discuss munyas and their counterparts throughout the Islamic lands, not to mention the social and economic structures that produced and sustained such estates. Nevertheless, at this stage of the art historical discourse, in which early and medieval Islamic art and architecture is still believed by many to be, at best, peripheral to the so-called Western art historical tradition, “villa” has familiarity and broad usage to recommend it, and conveys more accurately what a munya was and its role in Umayyad society, than do alternatives such as "house," "residence," or "palace." This is a critical consideration, given that the purpose of this book is partly to argue for the consideration of the munya, as one example of a medieval phenomenon comparable in many respects to ancient Roman and early modern villas, into the broad discourse of villas and villa cultures.

The long-entrenched art historical narrative of the villa, articulated in the nineteenth century by Jacob Burckhardt in his foundational work on the culture of early modern Italy, holds that villa culture, with its emphasis on the appreciation of landscape and villa life, disappeared with the fall of the Roman empire, only to be recovered again in Renaissance Italy.14 Early on in the historiography of al-Andalus, this narrative was questioned. Leopoldo Torres Balbas, the great twentieth-century historian of Andalusi art and urbanism, observed that such a perspective was only possible because of Burckhardt's ignorance of the Córdoban munyas.15 Considering the rich historiography on villas in late antique Britain, Gaul, Syria, Iberia, and North Africa, it might be difficult to believe that Burckhardt's viewpoint persists. Yet, despite James Ackerman's invitation to revisit this limited framework, a constricted understanding of the villa as a historical and artistic phenomenon is still very much with us in standard narratives such as the one that follows, whose central thesis is still repeated in contemporary art historical reference and survey books:

The villa holds a central place in the history of Western architecture. On the Italian peninsula in antiquity and again during the Renaissance ..... After the Renaissance, the villa appears beyond an Italian context as an architectural form revived and re- imagined throughout western Europe and in other parts of the world influenced by European culture.16

This paradigm assumes the essential continuity and unity of "Western" civilization and implies its exclusive ownership of the villa as architectural and cultural phenomenon. The account, with its direct and unmediated connection between ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance villas and villa cultures, leaves out the medieval "Dark Ages." The very notion of the Dark Ages indeed is partly defined by the disappearance of the villa. According to this paradigm the enlightened classical past was replaced by a "middle age" dominated by an all-encompassing religiosity. Such an account leaves out the world beyond western European Christendom, including the great villas and villa cultures of Iranian antiquity that so inspired the ancient Greeks and Romans, not to mention the rich Roman and late antique villas of greater historic Syria and North Africa. Scholars writing from various disciplinary perspectives have critiqued the assumptions behind this periodization, and it is not necessary to revisit those arguments here. Rather, this book aims to continue from two distinct but related frameworks: the first, put forth by Ackerman, holds that the villa is better understood conceptually, as an ideological construct, rather than in a strict, typological sense.17 Ackerman's thesis thus makes it possible to speak of villas and villa cultures beyond the aforementioned narrow confines of ancient Roman and early modern Italian villas.

If Ackerman's framework provides the general outlines for this study, the second framework is more specifically concerned with Islamic art. Oleg Grabar's approach to the early Islamic estates of Umayyad Syria as part of the story of the villa in late antiquity, and of subsequent medieval Islamic estates (namely the Alhambra) as part of a larger history of villas in the Mediterranean likewise undergirds this investigation of the munya.18 In sum, this book is an attempt to answer the invitation in Ackerman and Grabar's work, subsequently echoed by other scholars, to expand the confines of villa studies to encompass the so-called non-West.19 None of this will be new to historians of Islamic art or of al-Andalus. However, the book's aim is not only to seek a greater understanding of the munya and its place in Córdoban Umayyad history, but to propose some connections between the munya and the wider world, literally and in terms of the scholarship, which might be of interest to those outside of Islamic and Andalusi studies.

The valorization of the Italian Peninsula, and the attendant assumption of its normative status in the history of the villa, in part lies behind discourses which deny a constructive role to many late antique and early medievals. In this paradigm, for example, the Germanic peoples who settled in the central and western territories of the Roman empire and the Arab peoples of Rome's former eastern territories are barbarians and infidels, responsible for destroying classical culture, and with it the villa.20 Such a view no longer holds of course, yet traces of it linger on in art historical discourses like that mentioned above. This is partly a consequence of the structure of academic institutions and disciplinary divisions; it is only relatively recently, with the emphasis on active and engaged artistic exchange and encounter (as opposed to notions of passive “influence”) that Islamic art has become a topic of interest in the wider field of art history. An emphasis on religion as the primary lens through which medieval Islamic societies are to be understood, with its underlying assumption that religion must, a priori, be the lens through which Islamic societies are interpreted, has aggravated the issue. The art historical corollary to this discourse is a focus on religious monuments to the detriment of secular buildings.21 The focus on religious monuments has been magnified by issues of disciplinary method; art history relies on standing monuments as the primary evidence and focus of analysis. In the Islamic lands religious buildings tend to be valued by successive generations who maintain them over time, whereas secular buildings are more prey to destruction or deterioration over time and to changes in taste. Secular sites associated with ruling dynasties, or those located outside city walls, have been especially vulnerable. Those medieval Islamic aristocratic residences which have survived, such as the eighth-century Umayyad “desert castles" in present-day Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories and the fourteenth-century Alhambra and Generalife in Spain, are the spectacular exceptions to the rule. Preserved religious monuments therefore lend themselves more easily to art historical analysis, while the fragmentary or altered state in which secular monuments come down to us resist art historical analysis and have therefore been paid less attention. This art historical focus on surviving religious monuments, while understandable, has nevertheless problematically overshadowed the importance of secular buildings in the broader picture of medieval Islamic architecture and urbanism. As a result, we tend to view the medieval Islamic past in a way which privileges the religious ideals of Islam as it crystallized in the later medieval period over all other considerations in medieval Islamdom, whether at the level of aristocratic society or of other social classes. It is a truism that Islam is not only a religion but a way of life; this does not necessarily mean, however, that every product of Islamic societies must be interpreted primarily through a religious framework. At the same time, it would be a mistake to insist on a clear binary division between secular and sacred architecture, since the relationships between the two were often dynamic and fluid, an observation that has particular resonance where villas are concerned.22 Nevertheless, medieval Arabic political and ethical writing, through the works of authors such as the caliphal envoy and jurist al-Māwardī (d. 1058) for example, suggests that caliphal-era authors themselves distinguished between matters and conduct associated with the secular, worldly realm (dunya) of political sovereignty and that of religion (din), and that they found both realms to be essential to good governance.23 The emphasis on religion has led to a problematic tendency to judge Islamic caliphal court societies anachronistically, according to religious ideals which may only have been agreed upon later among the ‘ulamā', or urban religious establishment. Such judgment tends to be especially damning of the Syrian Umayyads, who are at once presented in an unfavorable light by those antagonistic to them.24 The negative light in which the Syrian Umayyads have been judged has been unwittingly inflamed by art historical studies of the qusur, which, while they bring to life important aspects of Umayyad court culture relevant to the early Islamic villa, have perhaps inadvertently lent fuel to anti-Umayyad discourses by focusing on the alleged exploits of Walīd II. Associated with the luxurious Umayyad qasr known as Khirbat al-Mafjar, his often unorthodox behavior was the subject of comment precisely because in its more extreme manifestations it diverged from the norm.25 If one could imagine a similar situation in, say, ancient Roman art history, it would be as if ancient Roman villas and villa culture were studied primarily through the lens of the Domus Aurea and Nero's extreme behavior. Likewise, one need only imagine how different our understanding of medieval Europe's social history would be if interpreted solely through the lens of the writings of the Church to see the serious limitations of such an approach.

Given the normative role assigned to the Italian Peninsula in villa and garden studies, and the emphasis on normative religious ideals and on religious monuments, it is no wonder there has been little room in the broader discourses of art history for "non-Western" or medieval Islamic villas. By questioning the assumption that the villa was primarily a phenomenon of "the West" I hope in this book to open the art historical discourse on villas and villa cultures to the medieval period generally, and to medieval Islamic art and architecture specifically. The munyas of Córdoba present an opportunity to move beyond the traditional disciplinary divisions between “Eastern” and "Western" traditions-the Iberian Peninsula is the far west of Europe, after all—and to explore one of the many strands of villa history which can be traced out of antiquity and into the medieval period.26 This book is therefore a response to the implicit invitation embodied by James Ackerman's inclusive framework for the villa, to enrich the discourse by writing a medieval Islamic chapter in the long story of the villa.

The Munya and Andalusi Umayyad Art History

The munya is inseparable from the genesis of Islamic rule on the medieval Iberian Peninsula. ‘Abd al-Rahmān I founded two great works of architecture in Córdoba which embodied his aspirations as the new ruler of al-Andalus. The first monument he founded was in fact a munya; the congregational mosque was founded much later in his reign, some thirty years after 'Abd al- Rahman I's arrival on Iberian soil. Unlike that first munya, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the focus of expansion and embellishment by generations of his successors to the Umayyad throne, still stands, and is rightly acknowledged as one of the great achievements of world architecture. Even after the Castilian conquest of Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus as it was known in Arabic, the Umayyad mosque was adopted by its Christian conquerors, who by the fifteenth century considered it a wonder of the world, worth preserving (though not without some changes) even as shifting tides in politics, religion, and fashion destroyed many of its brethren across Spain. One of the largest and most impressive mosques constructed in all of medieval Islamdom, the Great Mosque of Córdoba is without a doubt the outstanding testament to the dynasty's architecture. Yet, it is important to remember that the first Umayyad monument was a munya, and as I hope to show in the pages that follow, these estates offer as compelling a window onto this medieval court society as the celebrated congregational mosque which has become the dynasty's most evocative symbol.

In contrast to the Great Mosque, preserved for over a millennia by generations of worshippers, the munyas of Islamic Córdoba have all but vanished from the city's landscape and are hardly known outside the circle of specialists in the history of al-Andalus. Fragments of walls and waterworks still survive, scattered throughout the roughly 13-kilometer territory just west of the medieval walled center, but there is no monument left in Córdoba through which a visitor might walk and experience the architectural and landscape qualities of these medieval Islamic villas. Nevertheless, their present invisibility—literal and historiographic—is inversely proportional to their significance to the medieval city and its court society. Bound up in early Islamic Córdoba's urban, artistic, social, economic, and political history, the munya as a cultural phenomenon is far greater than the sum of its meager surviving archaeological parts. The Córdoban munya, as examined solely through the lens of either art history or texts, tends to blur. The munya evades attempts at rigidly bound definitions; protean and multifaceted in nature, the estates require reconstitution through the assemblage of many types of evidence, material as well as textual. The challenge of this book has been to restore the munyas to their central space in the history of this medieval Islamic court society, despite their erasure from the landscape of Córdoba and the general historiographic bias in favor of religious monuments.

For this reason, the book opens with an exploration of patronage and social functions, underscoring the centrality of these suburban villas to the social history of the Umayyad court. Chapter 1 examines the estates as the privilege of a highly select group within the ruling class. Munya patronage among the three great factions of the court—the sovereigns, unfree elites, and their competitors for power, the free aristocracy—is one of the key areas in which the study of architecture and material culture can reveal something of Córdoban Umayyad court life which is otherwise difficult to make out in the brief references to the estates which appear in medieval texts. People did not have munyas unless they possessed power, either in and of themselves, as in the case of the Umayyad sovereign, or because they enjoyed a particularly privileged position with respect to that ruler. The struggle for political power and social status between the family dynasties and the elite slaves, and by the Umayyad ruler who sought to balance those interests in his own favor, was played out largely in the realm of munya patronage. Powerful courtiers vied with one another as much through villa patronage, through which they proclaimed their power and status on the landscape of greater Córdoba, as through political appointments.

After establishing the social dimensions of the munya, Chapter 2 analyzes the architecture and ornament of the estates and explores their relationship to Umayyad luxury arts. Given the centrality of the estates to Umayyad court life, the luxury objects—the ivories, ceramics, metalware, textiles, which make up the majority of the extant art and material culture of Umayyad Córdoba— take on much greater meaning when considered in conjunction with the architectural settings and social events in which they were used, displayed, and enjoyed. Ironically, it is the estates that have vanished, while these small objects alone remain to convey something of the meanings that luxury and refinement bore in the Umayyad court.

Chapter 3 seeks to better understand munya gardens and cultivated spaces. Drawing on Umayyad agricultural texts, munya gardens are examined as sites of cultivation keyed to court concerns, and to define their place within a broader landscape. Munyas were indeed sites of agricultural production, whose purpose was neither profit nor merely pleasure, but self-identity. The point of the munya was to create surroundings in which the most privileged aristocrats could enjoy a setting suitable to a very specific notion of what it meant to be a member of this select elite, a notion that was generally shared amongst the court cultures of the medieval Islamic lands between the eighth and tenth centuries and which was rooted in ideas of elegance and refinement, of erudition, of generosity, piety and, in the case of the Umayyad ruler, of both political and religious sovereignty. The choice of plantings in villa gardens, the decoration of the pavilions set within those gardens, the foods one consumed and the perfumes one wore to the feasts held within the munya's stone walls were connected.

By their nature the munyas went beyond portable luxury objects in conveying meaning to a broad audience. By the tenth century the Córdoban estates were symbols of power, wealth, and social status made visible on the landscape of Córdoba itself, and served as the public face of the Umayyad court. Kings and ambassadors, from neighboring Islamic cities and from outside al-Andalus, from as far away as the Ottonian and Byzantine courts were housed and entertained in munyas during official visits to the court of the Umayyad sovereigns. By the mid-tenth century the estates functioned as way stations along the processional routes connecting Madīnat al-Zahrā' and the old urban palace of Córdoba: a veritable villa landscape. Civic processions began and ended at the gates of munyas belonging to the sovereign or his most powerful administrators. The spectacle of the caliphal and military corteges winding their way along the ceremonial routes, through the flourishing suburban countryside, became one of the most compelling statements of Umayyad sovereignty. The message embodied in the munya by the middle of the tenth century was a multilayered one with distinct valences, depending on whether one viewed them from within or without. The circumscribed group of courtiers who participated in events held within the walls of the munyas shared common codes of conduct based partly on shared Islamic ideals of refinement. To a more public audience, who viewed the munyas from the outside, the villas' incorporation into the civic realm as key points along processional ways broadcast an unmistakable message about Umayyad ownership of the land, and good government. The munya landscape might be compared, in the conflation between good governance and a flourishing villa landscape, with Ambrogio Lorenzetti's fourteenth-century frescoes in the Palazzo Publico of Sienna, and suggest a parallel between Umayyad Córdoba and ancient Rome and early modern Europe.

The book concludes with a consideration of the munya as the ancestor and inspiration for the later palaces and gardens of al-Andalus, especially the celebrated Alhambra and Generalife of fourteenth-century Nasrid Granada, and as one constellation within a larger universe of medieval Islamic villa cultures. Umayyad Córdoba constitutes but one fragment of a larger picture of such aristocratic estates in the medieval Islamic lands, a context which has yet to be systematically and coherently elucidated. Umayyad Córdoba may not be an anomaly, but may have parallels in other areas of the Islamic Mediterranean, and eastward to Iraq and Iran and Central Asia, where textual and material evidence also indicates that suburban estates played a role in other medieval Islamic court societies, which deserves closer investigation. Across the Dar al-Islam such estates and the court cultures which they served drew equally upon the Greco- Roman and the Iranian past, in the form of appropriation and reuse of sites and infrastructure, in the adaptation of and innovation of pre-Islamic modes of art, architecture, and ornament, of garden making, culinary practices, and any number of other aspects of social life. The existing evidence and the increasing availability of new evidence about such estates therefore points to the medieval Islamic lands as a source of intriguing answers to ongoing questions about the fate of the villa in late antiquity and the medieval period. The inclusion in the Appendix of relevant passages from the Umayyad court chronicles, provided in both the Arabic text and new English translations, will, I hope, be interesting and useful to both students and scholars.


1.       Jonathan P. Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007 [2003]).

2.       On Umayyad al-Andalus the work of Evariste Lévi-Provençal remains foundational. See Lévi-Provençal, Histoire de l'Espagne musulmane, 3 vols. (Leiden/Paris: Maisonneuve, 1950-53); E. Levi-Provençal, L'Espagne musulmane au Xème siècle: institutions et vie sociale; avec vingt-quatre planches et une carte hors text (Paris: Larose, 1932). Also see Janina M. Safran, The Second Umayyad Caliphate: The Articulation of Caliphal Legitimacy in al-Andalus, Harvard Middle Eastern monographs, 33 (Cambridge, MA: CMES, Harvard University, 2000), passim; Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al- Andalus (Harlow / New York: Longman, 1996), Chapters 1–5; and Pierre Guichard, La España Musulmana. Al-Andalus Omeya (s. VIII–XI), Historia de España, de Historia 16, no. 7 (Madrid, 1995), passim.

3.       Al-Maqqarī, Nafḥh al-Tīb, ed. Ihsan ‘Abbas (Beirut, 1965), I: 466–67.

4.       Gulru Necipoglu, “An Outline of Shifting Paradigms in the Palatial Architecture of the Pre-Modern Islamic World,” Ars Orientalis 23 (1993), 3–26.

5.       The motivations behind these choices are examined by Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics and the City in Fatimid Cairo (Albany, NY: State University of New York

press, 1994); Melanie Michailidis, “Landmarks of the Persian Renaissance: Monumental Funerary Architecture in Iran and Central Asia in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” (Ph.D. diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Architecture, 2007).

6.       Ibn 'Abd Rabbihi, The Unique Necklace: Al-'Iqd al-farīd, vol. I, trans. Issa J. Boullata (Reading: Garnet Publishers, 2006), xiv.

7.       Norbert Elias, The Court Society, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), 79.

8.       Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986).

9.       Henri Pérès, La poésie andalouse en arabe classique au XIeme siecle: ses aspects generaux et sa valeur documentaire (Paris: Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1937), 121–57; Salma Khadra Jayyusi, “Nature Poetry in al-Andalus and the Rise of Ibn Khafaja,” in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 367–97; and William Stoetzer, “Floral Poetry in Muslim Spain," in The Authentic Garden: A Symposium on Gardens, ed. L. Tjon Sie Fat and E. de Jong (Leiden: Clusius Foundation, 1990), 177–88.

10.   The problematic historiographic assumption of the munya as ultimately frivolous is pointed out by Cynthia Robinson, In Praise of Song: The Making of Courtly Culture in al-Andalus and Provence, 1005-1134 A.D. (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 47.

11.   I would like to thank Alex Metcalfe for sharing his observations on this larger issue, which I would like to consider in future work, ideally in collaboration with specialists working in those areas of the medieval Dār al-Islam that did have strong villa traditions in antiquity and late antiquity, such as Sicily, North Africa, and Syria.

12.   Scholars have debated this terminology with particular reference to the residence of Diocletian at Split. See Tadeusz Zawadzki, “La residence de Diocletien a Spalatum. Sa denomination dans l'Antiquité,” Museum Helveticum 44, fasc. 3 (1987), 223–30, cited in Slobodon Curcic, “Late-Antique Palaces: The Meaning of Urban Context," Ars Orientalis 23 (1993), n. 6.

13.   James Ackerman, The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Mirka Benes and Dianne S. Harris, eds, Villas and Gardens in Early Modern Italy and France (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Dianne S. Harris, The Nature of Authority: Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-century Lombardy (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, c. 2003).

14.   First published as Jacob Burckhardt, Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien: in Versuch (Basel: Schweighauser, 1860). In the English edition The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: An Essay (New York: Phaidon, 1951 ed.), see “Discovery of the Beauty of Landscape," and "Domestic Life: The Villa and Country Life," 178-83, 245.

15.   Leopoldo Torres Balbas, "Los contornos de las ciudades hispanomusulmanes,” al-Andalus 15 (1950), 437–86.

16.   Metropolitan Museum of Art, Timeline of Art, "The Idea and Invention of the Villa," (accessed February 16, 2011).

17.   Articulated as a framework in James Ackerman, “The Villa as Paradigm,” Perspecta 22 (1986), 10–31; and then elaborated in Ackerman, The Villa.


18.   Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, revised and enlarged edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 30–33; 132–57; Oleg Grabar, The Alhambra (London: Penguin, 1978).

19.   Necipoglu, "An Outline of Shifting Paradigms," 3-26; Nicholas Purcell, "The Roman Villa and the Landscape of Production," in Urban Society in Roman Italy, ed. Tim J. Cornell and Kathryn Lomas (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 151-79.

20.   The historiographic issues on Romans and “barbarians” are discussed by Michael Kulikowski, Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric (Cambridge / New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and The Rhetoric of Being Roman: Ideology and Politics in the Fourth Century (forthcoming).

21.   A problem addressed by Necipoglu, “An Outline of Shifting Paradigms,” 3–26, esp. 3.

22.   Alicia Walker and Amanda Luyster, “Introduction: Mapping the Heavens and Treading the Earth: Negotiating Secular and Sacred in Medieval Art,” in Negotiating Secular and Sacred in Medieval Art: Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist, ed. Alicia Walker and Amanda Luyster (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009), 1–16; and in the same volume Lara Tohme, “Spaces of Convergence: Christian Monasteries and Umayyad Architecture in Greater Syria," 129-45.

23.   For example, the distinction is made by al-Māwardī in his treatise Adab al- dunya wa-l-din, ed. M. Rājiḥ (Beirut, 1401/1981), 5-6. See L. Marlow, "Advice and Advice Literature," in Encyclopaedia of Islam 3, ed. Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

24.   On this tendency with regards to the Syrian Umayyads, see Berkey, The Formation of Islam, 79.

25.   Nevertheless these studies brilliantly bring these buildings and their patrons to life, and methodologically are important. Robert Hamilton, Walid and His Friends: An Umayyad Tragedy, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, no. VI, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), passim; Robert Hillenbrand, "La Dolce Vita in Early Islamic Syria: The Evidence of Later Umayyad Palaces,” Art History 5 (1982), 1–35. As Lara Tohme points out, the reliability of the texts on which these studies rely has been called into question in H. Atwan, Al-Walid b. Yazid: 'Ard wa naqd (Beirut, 1981), 189–90. Lara G. Tohme, “Out of Antiquity: Umayyad Baths in Context” (Ph.D. diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005), 35.

26.   Garth Fowden, From Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).